The crowds in Salem are smaller this month than they would normally be, but the number of people visiting the Witch City is still "more than we feel comfortable having," Mayor Kim Driscoll said Wednesday as she and Gov. Charlie Baker pleaded with Halloween revelers to stay away this year.
"We're concerned with warm weather and this wanderlust that we're seeing with folks who just want to get out, that we're gonna have lots of people flocking to Salem for the typical Halloween events that will not be happening, they've all been canceled," Driscoll said. She added, "This is not the year to come to Salem, this is not the year to visit ... all Halloween activities have been canceled this year, there'll be no music stages, no street performers, no beer gardens, no DJs and no fireworks, and, we hope, no crowds."
The mayor said her city might typically host 50,000 to 60,000 visitors on a weekend day around Halloween, and that "Halloween Junior" — the weekend before Oct. 31 — is often nearly as busy as Halloween itself. But because large crowds raise the risk of COVID-19 transmission, Driscoll announced a series of steps the city (and state partners) will take to discourage people from visiting for the rest of October.
"Ordinarily, there's no better place to celebrate Halloween than Salem. These are not ordinary times," Baker said Wednesday.
Businesses in downtown Salem will be asked to close early on Oct. 23 and Oct. 24, and the city expects its Board of Health to require businesses to close early, at 8 p.m., both Oct. 30 and Oct 31. All city parking garages and lots will stop accepting vehicles after 2 p.m. on Oct. 23 and after noon on Oct. 24, 25, 30 and 31, and on Nov. 1, Driscoll said. The city said all privately-operated parking lots will also be "ordered to close to entering vehicles at these times" too.
The MBTA's Commuter Rail, which city and state officials typically promote as a means to get to Salem around Halloween, will make schedule changes to have most weekend trains bypass Salem over the next two weekends.
On Oct. 23 and Oct. 30, no commuter rail trains outbound from Boston will stop at the station in Salem between 7 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. On Oct. 24, Oct. 25 and Oct. 31, outbound trains from Boston will bypass Salem from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. Baker said trains inbound to Boston from Salem will not be affected, and that the MBTA sought to ensure that some service would remain for essential workers.
"I really feel like the fun police here, right? It's the cats-are-biting-the-dogs sorts of scenarios. We are normally imploring people to take the trains and working with the MBTA to get more trains here. We are normally working to accommodate parking, make sure people know where to park, and how to park," Driscoll said. "So the activities we're taking really telling folks, 'this isn't the year to come, put it off until another time period and certainly do not come without a plan at all,' is unprecedented for us and I think it speaks to the times when."
Driscoll had previously said her city would not move into the latest economic reopening round authorized by Baker, canceled all parades, festivals and large events, prohibited street performers from the downtown area, ceased all marketing, implemented a mandatory mask zone in the downtown area, and began requiring all overnight guests in Salem to complete a local traveler form.
The governor said Salem has "exceptional mask compliance" and talked about recent day trips he and his family have made to Salem this fall, but said that the kind of large-scale events that typically mark Halloween there could not safely take place during a pandemic, even if the city and its businesses do a good job adhering to state guidelines.
"Our family's been over here a few times in September and October during the day, on the weekends, and at night, and it's 90 percent-plus," Baker said of mask-wearing in downtown Salem. "And it's manageable with respect to the distancing that's possible on what I would call a traditionally busy day in downtown Salem. But a typical Halloween weekend in Salem is not manageable."
Driscoll said Salem businesses "have had a pretty good month so far" and said that most of the business owners she's talked with understand that welcoming large crowds to Salem now could threaten the ability to stay open in the months ahead.
"We're in it for the long haul. It's not just about October, it's about November and December and January. We don't want to do anything now that's going to push us into a phase that we'd have to shut down completely," the mayor said. She added, "Salem will be here after Halloween. We want to make sure we're up and running and serving everybody well afterwards as well."
Two weeks ago, Baker visited Salem to talk about trick-or-treating and how to safely celebrate Halloween this year. The Baker administration is leaving it up to local officials to decide whether to allow trick-or-treating but offered some suggestions and guidance.
Trick-or-treating should be done in small groups only, all costumes should include a mask sufficient to help protect against spreading COVID-19, and adults should consider leaving candy outside on a cookie sheet for trick-or-treaters to pick up, Baker said.
"The best thing you can do if you want to celebrate Halloween, find a way to get outside and just be careful and cautious," the governor said earlier this month. "Wear a face covering. Keep your distance and take advantage of all the guidance that's been out there previously about the best way to avoid further infection."